Incision Care After Surgery

Topic Overview

After surgery, you will need to take care of the incision as it heals. Your doctor used either stitches, staples, or tape strips to close the incision. And you will need to keep the area clean, change the dressing according to your doctor's instructions, and watch for signs of infection.

Tips for reducing the risk of infection

To reduce the risk of infection:

  • Do not wash the area for at least 24 hours. Depending on the type of surgery you had, you may need to wait longer. Follow your doctor's instructions exactly.
  • Look at the incision every day, checking for signs of infection (see below).
  • Change the dressing as your doctor recommends.

Do not:

  • Scrub or rub incisions.
  • Remove the tape strips (such as Steri-Strips) from incisions unless your doctor tells you to.
  • Use lotion or powder on incisions.
  • Expose incisions to sunlight.
  • Take a bath unless you can keep the incision dry. Take showers until your doctor says it's okay to take baths. Before you shower, cover the dressing with a plastic bag or use another method of keeping it dry.

You may notice some soreness, tenderness, tingling, numbness, and itching around the incision. There may also be mild oozing and bruising, and a small lump may form. This is normal and no cause for concern.

Signs of infection

Call your doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • Signs of an infection, such as:
    • A yellow or green discharge that is increasing.
    • A change in the odor of the discharge.
    • A change in the size of the incision.
    • Redness or hardening of the surrounding area.
    • The incision is hot to the touch.
    • Fever.
    • Increasing or unusual pain.
    • Excessive bleeding that has soaked through the dressing.

Changing a dressing

Before you start, make sure you have gauze pads, surgical gloves, surgical tape, a plastic bag, and scissors. Then:

  1. Prepare supplies by opening the gauze packages and cutting new tape strips.
  2. Put on surgical gloves.
  3. Loosen the tape around the old dressing.
  4. Remove the old dressing.
  5. Remove the surgical gloves. At this point, you may want to clean the incision. (See instructions below.)
  6. Wash your hands, and put on another pair of surgical gloves.
  7. Inspect the incision for signs of infection.
  8. Hold a clean, sterile gauze pad by the corner and place over the incision.
  9. Tape all four sides of the gauze pad.
  10. Put all trash in the plastic bag, including gloves.
  11. Seal plastic bag and throw it away.
  12. Wash your hands.

Cleaning an incision

To clean the incision:

  • Gently wash it with soap and water to remove the crust.
  • Do not scrub or soak the wound.
  • Do not use rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, iodine, or mercurochrome, which can harm the tissue and slow wound healing.
  • Air-dry the incision or pat it dry with a clean, fresh towel before reapplying the dressing.

Caring for stitches, staples, or adhesive strips

Stitches or staples normally cause some redness and swelling where the stitch enters the skin, along with mild irritation and itching. Some drainage from the incision may be expected for the first few days after surgery. But if the discharge does not decrease after a few days, becomes bright red with blood, or contains pus, contact your doctor.

The incisions may be protected with small adhesive strips (such as Steri-Strips) instead of a dressing or bandage. You usually do not have to change these strips. Leave them in place until they become loose or fall off on their own.

Understanding special instructions

After some surgeries, you may be given special instructions other than these for taking care of the incision. Be sure to follow those instructions carefully. If you are confused by the instructions or you have a question, call your doctor's office. If the office is closed, leave a message with the answering service. If your pain has increased or you suspect you may have an infection, call your doctor as soon as possible.

Related Information


Other Works Consulted

  • Sullivan SR, et al. (2007). Acute wound care. In WW Souba et al., eds., ACS Surgery, 6th ed., pp. 102–125. New York: WebMD.


Author Monica Rhodes
Editor Kathleen M. Ariss, MS
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer C. Dale Mercer, MD, FRCSC, FACS - General Surgery
Last Updated January 29, 2009

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